Craig's tractor deal still has Janesville trucking

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Gazette Staff
Monday, December 22, 2008
— Joseph A. Craig turned the tables on William C. Durant.

Durant founded General Motors by buying up individual auto companies—Oldsmobile, Buick and Oakland (Pontiac) among them—and he bought Samson Tractor, a troubled California company, as an entry into the agricultural equipment market.

In 1918, Craig was general manager of Janesville Machine Co., a growing, prosperous manufacturer of farm implements and the city’s largest business with 300 workers.

Durant called Craig to Detroit to try to entice him to leave Janesville Machine and heal Samson Tractor.

Craig had a different idea: move Samson Tractor to Janesville and merge it with Janesville Machine.

Durant didn’t want to get further entangled in the farm machinery business, so he rejected the idea.

Craig persisted. The story goes that Durant looked out his office window for some time, then said: “I will cancel all engagements for today and tonight, and we will talk it over.”

Both men turned out to be right.

The two companies combined in Janesville as GM’s Samson Tractor Division, and they were augmented by the purchase of Janesville Carriage Works.

Janesville made its first Model M tractor in 1919 in the new one-story factory that GM built in what was then the suburb of Spring Brook.

In 18 months, Janesville’s population jumped from 14,000 to 20,000 as people moved here to work on and in the tractor factory, which employed almost 3,000 people in 1919.

Housing was tight. Residents rented spare rooms to newcomers, and a series of barracks, “Camp Samson,” was built for workers.

Durant was right about the tractor business. Samson was belly up by ’22, the victim of both a national farm depression and quirky design.

The Janesville factory also made trucks from 1920-22. GM moved the truck assembly here from Flint, Mich.

Craig was on the money about Janesville. To seal the deal, Janesville leaders pledged that the city would provide paved streets, new houses for GM workers and good schools for their children.

The civic effort resulted in building Janesville High School—later Marshall Middle School. A housing corporation built houses to sell to workers. Street paving accelerated.

And when GM closed Samson, Craig convinced the corporation that it owed Janesville because of the city’s efforts, and GM decided to build Chevrolets here.

This story first appeared in “Century of Stories,” published by The Janesville Gazette in 2000.

Last updated: 11:05 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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